Saturday, October 16, 2010

Album of the month: Dance

Dance by Lissa Schneckenburger
2010, Footprint Records

Running by the ocean at sunset, I was listening to the lilting, Celtic notes of a fiddle. As I inhaled the salt air in gulps and looked out at the gray sea, I could almost convince myself it was Galway Bay out there beside me. But that couldn't be true. For one, the Boston skyline was just ahead.

Also, I was far too busy busking and drinking in Ireland to ever do any jogging.

Anyway, the fiddle was courtesy of Dance by Lissa Schneckenburger. Lissa -- a student of traditional New England music, which is heavily influenced by the Celtic regions -- recently recorded a pair of concept albums, where she researched and resurrected nearly forgotten folk songs from the Northeast.

The first, 2008's Song, focused on ballads, while Dance, released in September, is an entirely instrumental collection of fiddle and dance tunes. (If you can't find a partner -- or, like me, simply don't like to dance -- it does make great company on an evening run.)

Gentle notes ease you into the album's first and best song, "Petronella." What follows is a perfectly arranged traditional tune; everything about this 4-minute wonder is just irresistible. It is both perky and elegant, light hearted and deeply moving. 

Next comes "Lamplighter's Hornpipe / Suffer the Child" -- a true dance number, upbeat and frisky. The interplay between the bass line and fiddle during the second eight of "Suffer the Child" creates beautiful, stirring harmonies.

"Moneymusk" features the album's most ambitious fiddling. At first I thought Lissa might have been shredding her instrument so hard that she hit a wrong note. But that squeaky sharp is part of the tune, and simply sounds a bit odd without accompaniment. The piece builds from solo violin to a full ensemble, complete with horns, that makes the final minutes feel nothing short of exuberant. It could play during the climactic closing scene of a John Hughes movie. 

Track 5, "Eugenia's Waltz," is the album's only real weak spot. Melodic and moody, it feels more like a ballad that should be sung (though I'm not sure it even has lyrics); for the first time, you realize you kind of miss Schneckenburger's voice. What bothers me the most, however -- and frankly this is kind of ridiculous of me -- is that the tune never reaches the high note it longs to hit in the chorus. As a songwriter, it just kills me to listen to this wasted opportunity each time through.

A tune that does hit that high note, however, is "Rory O'More." Charming and bouncy at the outset, it ambushes the listener with a moving bridge section that's extremely pensive, even a bit haunting. The pulsating, rhythmic "Fisher's Hornpipe" follows -- a tune that makes even me want to dance.

My second-favorite track, "Jamie Allen," rounds out the CD, and this arrangement makes the most of its marvelous melody. As the percussion backs off near the end of the tune, the resulting choir of instruments is breathtaking, and a beautiful way to end the album.

In fact, it's worth noting here that the accompaniment and sound mixing throughout Dance is spot on -- Lissa has surrounded herself with talented musicians who complement rather than compete with the fiddle, stealing the show only when it's called for.

While some lyric-loving listeners may find themselves longing for a vocal ballad thrown in the mix, any fan of instrumental trad will enjoy this album through and through. It's enough to transport you to the shores of Galway Bay -- or at least to the stools of Tig Coili's.

Lissa Schneckenburger performs at Club Passim Monday, Oct. 25.

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